Wednesday, June 22, 2011

“There are way worse jobs than sitting in front of a computer”: An Interview with Ester Brym

By James Latham

Recently, one of our alumni filmmakers, Ester Brym, posted something interesting on Facebook: “So the question is: Do I leave the TV business immediately or do I put up with it a little longer? Would washing dishes make more sense? Or what shall I do?”

Seeing this, and her film, I wanted to talk with Ester about this all-too-familiar situation as well as how her work is going, and her thoughts and experiences with social media.

James Latham: Your documentary film Butterflies, which won an award at last year’s VFF, profiles several online personalities as they become YouTube celebrities. How was your experience at the festival, and how has the film done since then?

Ester Brym: VFF was actually one of our favorite festivals. It was also the last festival we screened at since we started the festival circuit in early 2009. We have since gotten international distribution for the film via Journeyman Pictures and are working on our next project.

JL: Could you talk a little about how you got distribution, and some of the details about the deal itself—especially things that other filmmakers seeking distribution ought to be aware of?

EB: I think we were pretty lucky to get such great distribution by Journeyman Pictures, which has a great reputation in the documentary film field. I have not seen a bad film distributed by them and they were pretty fair and straightforward from the beginning. They told us exactly what to expect and what is not reasonable, so we decided to go with them over limited theatrical release, because this way we actually get to see some money. We had to deliver them both PAL and NTSC versions and cut the film down to 50 minutes so they could sell all over the world, and indeed they have so far sold Butterflies to Brazil, Poland, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, and even Kenya and northern Europe.

JL: As your film shows, social media can be great in many ways, but what do you think are some of its biggest myths or problems—especially for people working in “old” media?

EB: I think sometimes social media is being given way too much credit in terms of bringing attention to art projects, movies, music, causes, etc. It is definitely a great platform to use for networking, but as it becomes more popular and therefore also more crowded, lots of important events / projects will just get lost in the mix. It can be a great tool for businesses / projects etc. if used correctly, but it can also be a big waste of time if one doesn’t get fully engaged, doesn’t use it for communication back and forth, or uses it mainly to “spam”.

JL: What are you doing now professionally, in both film and TV?

EB: We are currently working on our second documentary about Route 66, which we spent three weeks travelling on. I am also in pre-production for a film about the European band Chinaski.

In terms of TV work, it is, as you would call it, my “day job” even though I work mostly nights in order to get more time during the day for whatever work I want to accomplish on my own. I work in post-production.

JL: What do you like and dislike about your work in TV? Would washing dishes make more sense as a day job?

EB: I like that I don’t have to commit to one company or one project for too long. I freelance so I can always see the end in sight. I also like that I can very often meet creative people who later collaborate with us on our documentary films.

I really dislike the way TV is going in the past few years and the amount of reality shows taking over our lives. I don’t see any redeeming value in these shows. It is not really creative work; it is just a form of voyeurism. The shots are not beautiful, the dialogue is lame, peoples’ attitudes are not always right and the production work hours and ethics can be ridiculous. I am not sure if washing dishes would make more sense, but sometimes I think working in a museum or in a park would. I guess the key is to have a day job that can be in some way inspiring. I don’t see reality TV as an inspiration, and no matter how hard I try to respect it, I always fail.

JL: Post-production in Reality TV may not be your preferred type of day job, but have you looked into leveraging your experience in both film and TV to make some kind of move within TV, as a day job that still may not be ideal but is helping you grow? Is it post- in Reality TV or nothing in TV?

EB: I think it would be pretty hard to do something very career oriented in TV and still manage to work on my documentaries. These are two such different fields (as much as they sometimes seem very similar to people) that I believe I can only do one well.

JL: How would you describe the response you got from your Facebook posting? What was the most useful feedback? Any surprises?

EB: I think the most useful advice was from people who have their 9-5 jobs and dislike it. They believe that one has to do something for money, and if it is not absolutely terrible (which, let’s be honest, there are way worse jobs than sitting in front of a computer), one should be able to get through it. I also realize that other jobs might not cover all my bills, so the actual idea of changing careers is not very reasonable.

JL: You are originally from the Czech Republic, studied filmmaking in New York, and then moved to Los Angeles. How has living and working here turned out differently than you had imagined, for better or worse?

EB: I don’t think I ever imagined living here or in NY so it turned out pretty good for me. I just kind of took one day at a time and things happened according to what I was interested in at that time. I am definitely very lucky to be able to live in some of the most wonderful cities in the world and I don’t take it for granted.

JL: In your film work, have you done much with professional organizations, such as the International Documentary Association?

EB: We used IDA a lot for marketing our film. We attended their networking events, met people, other filmmakers, got to see lots of films, asked questions... so yes.

JL: So, in the end, where do you plan to go, professionally?

EB: Professionally, I would just like to be able to do what I am doing now, and if possible with as little of reality TV in my life as I can. That means that I would like to keep making films, meeting people who are passionate about them, creative and willing to help just to be part of something great. Ideally, I would love to be able to travel and film all around the world as there are so many stories out there and I would love to learn about them and then put them into a film for others to see.

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